Sermon for Proper 18, Year C, September 8, 2019

Jeremiah 18:1-11    Psalm 139:1-5    Philemon 1-21  Luke 14:25-33

Growing up, if I said I hated anyone for any reason, I would get in trouble.  Words were important in my house.  Words were used to comfort people, to support others, but we learned that words can also be used to put people down and to hurt people – deeply.  So, when I hear in our gospel reading, Jesus say that in order to come to him, we must hate our fathers and mothers, spouses and children, I know that my mother would not have tolerated me saying what Jesus just said.

As a child I didn’t know the Bible well enough to quote this passage in my defense, but knowing my mother, quoting Jesus would not have given me a pass on saying “I hate you” to anyone.  My mother was right to correct me, to teach me that words have power and that every human being deserves to be loved for who they are at their core – a child of God. 

How then, am I to make sense of what Jesus is saying? The late theologian William Barclay wrote, “When Jesus tells us to hate our nearest and dearest, he does not mean that literally.  He means that no love in life can compare with the love we must bear to him.”  In New Testament times, people used gross exaggerations and colorful language for emphasis.  So they would understand that Jesus does not mean this literally.  Instead, he is speaking of the depth of commitment it will take to be his follower.  Following Christ is not a part-time job; it is not something we can do when it is convenient for us. 

Knowing how people communicated with one another in New Testament times helps me understand the point Jesus is making, but it also helps me to know that he said this as he was on his way to Jerusalem and the cross.  He continues this lesson by saying, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” 

Jesus then uses two metaphors to make it clear that we cannot truly follow Christ if we are unwilling to make sacrifices.  “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says.  The builder must first calculate the cost of building a tower, or he may not be able to finish it.  A king must first determine whether or not he has enough soldiers to win a war BEFORE going to battle against another king and THEN decide whether or not to ask for terms of peace.

          Being a Christian is not easy.  We must decide whether or not we are willing to commit whatever it takes to be a Christian.  Otherwise we may not be able to finish what we start. 

I was talking with someone this week who said, “the Word

[meaning scripture]

is clear, we need to live as Christ lives, but when I say this people, they start explaining what the scripture meant when it was written, what the Hebrew says.”  In a short conversation I knew that he and I read the scriptures differently – but I also could see the truth in what he was saying. 

          We don’t want to take up a cross and follow Jesus.  We don’t want to give up all our possessions to follow Christ.  I, like the Christians my new friend was upset with, can explain why I don’t think we are to take Jesus literally when he says to give up all our possessions, just as I can explain why were do not have to hate our family.  Jesus exaggerates to make his message clear – but the point he is making is, nonetheless, uncomfortable.  Saying we are Christians is not the same as being a Christian – living a life of service to others and placing people above possessions is being a Christian.

          My new friend asked me if I had ever known anyone who lived as Christ lived, and I told him I saw Christ is people all the time.  The same people I see serving as Christ to others fail over and over again to be like Christ – but they continue to strive to do so.  That’s why I believe we need church.  We need to set time aside each week to remember our commitment, to re-evaluate our priorities, to be supported by and to support others who are striving to be Christians. 

          Our passage from Jeremiah is one of my favorites.  In it, God has Jeremiah go to the potter’s house where he sees the potter making a vessel of clay.  The vessel is flawed, so the potter reworks it into another vessel, “as seemed good to him.”  God uses this as a lesson, saying, “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” 

          In Jeremiah, God is speaking of the whole people of Israel and how God has the power to “pluck up and break down and destroy” their kingdom – but the purpose of doing so is to remake it into something better.  The prophet shares this to his people in order to get them to repent, but this image of God as a potter and us as the clay is one that I believe speaks to us as Christians. 

          For us to choose to follow Jesus is to choose to become the clay that God, our creator, may mold into what seems good.  I know that I, as a vessel, am flawed and over and over again God has reworked this clay so that I might be a useful vessel for sharing God’s love with others. 

I do not have to hate those I love in order for God to mold me into someone useful, but I do have to put Christ first.  The person I am when I follow Christ is more loving and more caring than before, and hate is replaced with compassion. 

Today’s gospel is not able abandoning those we love in order to follow Jesus, it is about making the decision to be the clay, to submit all of ourselves to God – hold nothing back, so that we might be a vessel filled with the love of God for others – the ones we hold dearest, and everyone else we meet during our day. 

Let us pray.

          Loving God, you are the true source of love, help us to give ourselves to you, so that you can mold us into vessels filled with your love and that we might share it with others.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.